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So New Yorkers Make Eye Contact Now?

There's a disturbing new phenomenon in NYC—making eye contact with strangers.

Photo by Scott Evans / Unsplash

The first time it happened, about two months ago, I didn't think much of it. I was walking my dog  when out of the corner of my eye, I spied someone hanging out on his stoop. Then—we made eye contact. "Good morning!" he trilled out to me. I wished him the same, and kept going. Just a friendly neighbor, right?

A few days later, as I walked down my block to get to the train, it happened again. A stranger was walking towards me, and as we passed each other—we locked eyes. "Hello!" he said. A bit flummoxed, I stammered out, "Hey, what's up!" and spent the rest of my walk to the C train silently cursing myself out of embarrassment. (I couldn't come up with something better to say than "Hey, what's up?????")

But I also began wondering, is something in the air, other than COVID-19 particles and truly overwhelming amounts of pollen? Why am I suddenly making eye contact with (extremely polite and friendly) strangers on the street, and why are they suddenly making eye contact with me? Is this a thing we're doing now?

I texted some friends to ask if they've also experienced this disturbing new phenomenon. "Omg, YES," one of them replied immediately. "And saying hi. And being really nice." She added, "It's totally bonkers."

Now, every walk I take is suffused with a sort of ambient, low-grade stress. (The kind of stress that over time kills people.)

Should I be actively trying to make eye contact with other people? If not, where should I train my eyes? At the ground? At my phone? The sky? (Ouch, my neck!)

Is that rude? What happens if we look straight into each other's souls and neither of us says anything? Is that rude? Have we ripped the masks off our faces and discovered we're actually…friendly? And desperate for moments of human connection, no matter how awkward?

The other day, someone made eye contact with me and I quickly looked away, and he made a noise of disgust. Was I the asshole here, or was he??? Why is this happening???

I try to remember the Before Times, when we walked around carefree and not locking eyes with strangers, but it's hard to recall what everyday life was like back then. I miss those days, when every possible human interaction was just that—a possibility—and you could stroll the streets and ignore one another, confident that they would go on their way and you would go on yours, and nothing too bad would likely happen to either of you.

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